Holy Cowboy!

October 1, 2013

Saturdays of my childhood began with the Looney Tunes: Bugs Bunny and the rest. My father liked those old cartoons. Saturday afternoon was my mother’s time for watching “Westerns.” Mom came from a small mountain town and her father and relatives had horses and livestock. The Lone Ranger was a favorite for us to watch; part of Rossini’s William Tell Overture played as opening music and the cool surname of the actor who played Tanto was Silverheels. I remember also Wyatt Earp, “brave, courageous, and bold,” as the theme song went. The Earp character would have many later admirers via the film Tombstone. Westerns are no longer a staple of Saturdays, but I was reminded of them clearly when on Saturday morning, September 14th, 2013, I read about a beatification. On that Saturday Cardinal Amato, representing Pope Francis, beatified a priest of Argentina—Padre José Gabriel Brochero. Blessed José Gabriel is known in Argentina as the “cowboy priest.” This gaucho, as local cattle-herders are known, served a large parish spread over miles of mountainous terrain. Bl. José showed bravery in his first years as a priest by ministering to victims of a cholera epidemic in the city of Cordoba, Argentina. At 29 he was assigned to St. Albert, a remote parish numbering about ten thousand souls with neither schools nor roads. Padre José went on the back of a mule along the mountains to care for his flock, carrying a Mass kit and an image of the Blessed Mother. His flock was, in a sense, “lost,” so remote were they from the larger society. Father José said of his people that “they were abandoned by everyone, but not by God.” Early in his tenure, he desired spiritual renewal for his parish and so he led a group across mountains in a snowstorm to a retreat being held at Cordoba on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This beginning in prayer produced much fruit in the parish. His priestly ministry drew him to the people, to “go out,” as Jesus and his apostles went out to where the people were to be found. This “going out” involved risk: the danger of terrain, long days far from home, and the unexpected. Pope Francis has especially encouraged priests and generally all Christians to get out on the roads and into the public squares as a necessary first step in evangelization, in sharing Christ. Blessed José Gabriel was not unknown to the public for his incarnational way of ministering. He worked alongside his people. A Cordoba newspaper wrote about this priest’s way of serving in an 1887 article:

He practices the gospel. Are you missing a carpenter? He’s a carpenter. Are you missing a laborer? He’s a laborer. He rolls up his cassock wherever he is, takes the shovel or hoe and opens a public road in 15 days aided by his parishioners.

In these tasks Bl. José found a space of communion in labor with his parishioners and a solid imitation of his patron, St. Joseph. He worked to build roads, schools, and to get mail and telegraph couriers for the good of the people. In his letter to those gathered for the beatification ceremony Pope Francis said: “This shepherd who smelled of sheep became poor among the poor.” Bl. José Gabriel was born in 1840, the same year of birth as St. Damien of Molokai. Like Damien, José Gabriel served those who were considered untouchable, the lepers, and like Damien he died a leper. He continued to pray and offer Mass although ill and blind. His “going out” was a complete emptying of self. Pope Francis wrote: “Brochero did not stay in the parish offices: he would exhaust himself riding his mule and he ended up being sick with leprosy.” Bl. José Gabriel died January 26, 1914. The beatification ceremony at Cordoba was attended by close to 150,000 people, including three thousand gauchos wearing the traditional ponchos of the Argentine cowboy. This priest was a lone ranger when he had to be and, like his Divine Master, was brave, courageous, and bold. Long may his story be told!

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